Phonology Assistant

Phonology Assistant (PA) is a free phonology tool by SIL that (as of version 3.0) works interactively with the data stored in Toolbox, Fieldworks Language Explorer, and Speech Analyzer. It automates many of the cumbersome and repetitive tasks associated with doing phonological analysis, and it does so in a most systematic and revealing way. The things it does more or less automatically include drawing up a phone inventory; computing relative frequencies of phones; computing syllable structures; generating phonotactic charts for every conceivable combination of positions, phones, or features; and finding minimal pairs along various dimensions. A powerful search function allows the user to search for phonetic patterns within specified environments.

A review of Phonology Assistant by me was published yesterday in Language Documentation & Conservation. It’s a tremendously useful tool — anyone who has ever been faced with the task of doing phonological analysis will know that it can grow enormously complex, especially if one wants to be comprehensive and look not just at simple positional distribution (initial, medial, final) but also at occurrence in different environments (intervocalic, before voiced fricatives, after a nasal consonant, etc.). PA assists in these household chores, and does it all with an interface so smooth you wouldn’t notice the conceptual complexity of the tasks. Check out the review (pdf) or the PA website.

  1. Dingemanse, Mark. 2008. Review of Phonology Assistant 3.0.1. Language Documentation & Conservation 2, no. 2: 325-331. doi:  

Semantic cookies

Semantic cookies are sold in Akpafu-Mempeasem, central Volta Region, Ghana (among other places)

Fieldwork sessions on lexical semantics have become a lot easier since I found these cookies. I came across them in a small and dusty store in Akpafu-Mempeasem, my fieldwork hometown of all places.

Semantic cookies are made in Turkey by a company called BiFa Bisküvi. As BiFa they certainly have a knack (or failing that, a dictionary) for coining strange product names; other products of theirs are called Appeal, Effect, Talent, and Wisdom, to name just a few.


There are several ideophones in Siwu that have to do with silence. Here are a few examples:

mì-lo kanananana!
2PL-be.silent IDPH
(y’all) be silent kanananana!
a-rɛ kpooo-o?
2SG-sleep IDPH-Q
did you have a sound sleep?
lò-to lò-karɛ ɔ itɔ̃me a-ɣɛ à-to à-nyɔ mɛ gbigbini-gbi
1SG-PROG 1SG-ask 2SG:O message 2SG-stand 2SG-PROG 2SG-look 1SG:O IDPH-REDUP1
I’m asking you a question and you are standing looking at me gbigbinigbi!
ɔ̀-si mùnùmùnù
3SG-sit IDPH
he just sits mùnùmùnù (sickly without talking)

The implications of these four ideophones are different. The first one is perhaps the most general; it is often heard in requests for silence (esp. in the plural), but I’ve also heard it used to talk about the tranquility of the town. The second one, kpoo, is most commonly heard in the reply to the morning greeting lò yá mì ‘I greet you (pl.)’. It has a positive connotation of nocturnal silence and sound sleep. The other two both carry negative connonations: gbigbinigbi evokes a sulking silence, mùnùmùnù is silence of a more dim-witted, sickly type.

All this by way of announcing a scheduled period of radio silence during my two-month fieldtrip to Ghana from July to September 15th. I’ll be giving talks at the 26th West African Languages Conference in Winneba and the 2nd International Workshop on the GTM languages. The rest of the time I will be in Kawu, transcribing beautiful and sparkling conversation full of ideophones. In between times I may be able to post some snippets, but don’t expect too much — everything will be pretty much kanananana here. See you in September!

The Hidbap language of PNG

Mt. Iso in PNG, 12 miles southwest of Sumo, east of the Catalina River. Diuwe is spoken between sea level and the first isoline at 100m, Hidbap between the first and the second isolines.

This week, the language of the week at Anggarrgoon is DIY, also known as Diuwe. Claire Bowern, noting that the only comment in the Ethnologue entry of the language is the terse and rather mysterious ‘Below 100 meters’, claims that the phonology of DIY shows an effect of altitude on air stream mechanisms. I thought I would shed some light on this curious situation by profiling Hidbap, a language related to Diuwe.

Hidbap is Diuwe’s closest neighbour both geographically and phylogenetically. It is a language spoken above 100m but below 200m in the same area as Diuwe, that is, 12 miles southwest of Sumo, east of the Catalina River. Like Diuwe, it has exactly 100 speakers. The languages are quite closely related, though there is no mutual intelligibility due to the presence of a large bundle of isoglosses at the 100m isoline. Speakers of either language avoid crossing into each other’s territories at all cost (see below). Continue reading

Fieldwork snippet: What ideophones do

A while ago I spent some time with a language assistant to work through a list of the Siwu ideophones I collected so far. There were some interesting metalinguistic comments on the function of ideophones. Here are three representative exchanges (MD = me, SA = assistant, MA = his daughter):


What is gawungawun?
Gawungawun… they are all the same thing [referring to a few previous ones, also ways of walking]
Aha, no there must, no, they cannot be the same — they are different words!

They are, eh, but what… it’s only describing how the person is walking [shrugs shoulders]


What about gbadaragbadara?
Gbadaragbadaraa [laughs] It’s something… its just the s… its similar.
Similar, yes. Not the same, but similar, uhuh.
Yeah, similar. Let me see, gbadaragbadara or gadaragadara, that means uh… he is not serious or he is something like he is drunk…
[calling from the kitchen] It’s just an adjective that we are using to describe the way the person is walking


What about hiriririri
Oh… no… [doesn’t recognize the word]
ki … rotate [points to the fan in the background]
ite ki hiriririri, aa, okay, okay… yeah it’s just… no… so … just … you are just describing how it is turning [displaying an attitude of doubt as to whether this word has any use at all]
yes, yeah
ite ki hiriririri [it-PROG rotate hiririri] (makes rotating gesture)

The mildly dismissive attitude of SA is quite interesting, though not shared by most other speakers — I think it has to do with a certain level of education and perhaps some other sociolinguistic factors. For now I just want to draw attention to another aspect of these metalinguistic comments.

SA is saying that it is ‘just describing how it is turning’. That implies a difference between the statements ‘it is turning’ and ‘it is turning hiriririri’. In the first one, you do not specify how it is turning (i.e. which sensation it brings about); you merely describe the event that is going on. In the second one, you do more than this: an expressive depiction is added to the analytical description of the scene.1 This is one of the ways in which ideophones ‘pepper’ everyday speech in Siwu.


  1. Clark, Herbert H, and Richard J Gerrig. 1990. Quotations as Demonstrations. Language 66, no. 4:764-805.
  2. Walton, Kendall L. 1973. Pictures and Make-Believe. The Philosophical Review 82, no. 3:283-319.
  1. On the differences between description and depiction, see Clark & Gerrig 1990 and also Walton 1973. With thanks to Herbert Clark for pointing me to this paper. []

Fieldwork snippet: What is the difference between these words?

Hello from the field! I’m currently on a five-week trip to Kawu in the beautiful Volta Region, eastern Ghana (see the picture to the right), hence the irregular posting schedule. In line with my main business here, I will share some notes on doing fieldwork.

What about gligli?
Gligli is ‘round’
But what about minimini?
Minimini is also round. Uh… when you say giligili, it is something like an oval form, oval… [Avoiding eye-contact, drawing an egg-like shape on the table]… uhuh… but minimini … is errrr…. round.

One thing I noticed during fieldwork sessions is that if pressed to explain the difference between two words, people choose one of three strategies. The first strategy (A) is to insist that the words are just the same, that there really is no difference. This strategy is the most common perhaps, but it is easily defeated by pointing to the fact that the words are clearly different, so that there must be some difference.1

The two remaining strategies are (B) making up a difference on the spot in the hope that I will faithfully write it down so that we can go on to the next item; and (C) honestly probing for the difference by imagining several different scenarios and trying out various utterances and gestures. The answers produced by those who follow strategy C are extremely valuable, because they provide lots of additional contextual information. This also makes it quite easy to distinguish strategies B and C; people following strategy B will be unnaturally quick in giving an answer and will not want to explain much more about it.

Note that it does not help to penalize assistants for using strategy B (e.g. by pointing out inconsistencies). They will only feel more uncomfortable. The best response is usually to do what they hope you will do: swiftly going on to the next item (don’t forget to leave a mark so that you can revisit the problem!). Smiling friendly and making clear that you are taking them seriously helps in restoring their peace of mind and will make strategy C more readily available to them.2

Unfortunately, there are no language-helpers who will only ever employ strategy C. When a session has been going on for long, or when it gets all too inquisitive, there is a tendency to switch to strategy B even among the most helpful and sharp assistants. Take for example the following exchange between me and SA, who is normally quite particular about giving the ‘right’ meaning of words: Continue reading

  1. Usually one does not say it as brusquely as that, because that would not work; rather, you say something like, ‘Yes, they are very similar indeed — but perhaps there is a very subtle difference; in fact, I have the feeling that there is. Try to think about the images these words evoke, and about the situations in which you can use these words. Then you can probably get a grip on the difference.’ []
  2. All this depends of course on how well you and the assistant know each other. To OK, my regular and most faithful assistant, I can simply say, “Think again. There is a difference.” Then he will lean back and say, “OK, I’m coming…”, and he will start trying out different utterances. Within one minute, he will usually have found a way to articulate the difference, together with some beautiful example sentences. []

Remnants of some ancient tribal idiom: deciphering the oldest Siwu to appear in print

The Akpafus must immediately strike even the most casual observer as a people differing from the surrounding tribes. Their huts are flat roofed (with mud) instead of the conical grass-roofed houses of the Ewe race. Their language is not Ewe, but a remnant of some ancient tribal idiom. (Rattray 1916:431)

The town of Akpafu around 1905

The town of Akpafu one century ago1

Having been a small and quite isolated language for centuries, Siwu was relatively late to attract attention from outsiders. Europeans in search for gold, slaves, and other goods for the most part stayed near the coast. Halfway the nineteenth century, German firms (looking for cheap land) and missionary organizations (looking for converts) started to explore the Hinterland and it is in this period that the name Akpafu turns up for the first time in the historical record. (If you wonder about the etymology, see here.) The earliest mention I found so far is a photo by the German missionary photographer Christian Hornberger, titled Fetischpriester in Akpafu and dated 1864 (see below).2 Still, it took some time before Akpafu became more generally known, due in part to its remoteness, but probably also because of the turmoil caused by the Asante-British wars.

Fetischpriester in Akpafu (Hornberger, 1864; sign. 529)

‘Fetischpriester in Akpafu’ (Christian Hornberger, 1864)
Bremen Mission Archives 7.1025-0529

Rudolph Plehn, Beiträge zur Völkerkunde des Togo-Gebietes (1898)

Only when the area became part of the German colony of Togoland (1884-1914), more information became available.3 The earliest ethnographic source is a study by Rudolf Plehn, published as his dissertation in Halle in 1898 and titled Beiträge zur Völkerkunde des Togo-Gebietes (Contributions to the ethnography of the Togo area). It is here that we find the oldest fragment of Siwu to appear in print, and in this posting I’ll report on an attempt to decipher it. Continue reading

  1. If you wonder about the low quality of the image: this is a scan from a photo found in a piece by missionary Herman Schosser published in 1907 as volume 21 of the Bremer Missionsschriften (Schosser 1907:6). I have not yet been able to track down this picture in the Bremen Mission Archives, so it seems this is the best we’ve got.
    The flatroofed houses were really remarkable; this or this was much more typical of this part of Ghana. []
  2. See Alsheimer (2004:160). Alsheimer cites from a letter by Hornberger: “Dass sich der Fetischpriester bewegen ließ, mir zu stehen, halte ich für einen großen Sieg, den hiermit die Photographie über den Aberglauben davon getragen. Ich stehe gegenwärtig in Unterhandlung mit etlichen Fetischweiben, und hoffe es auch bei Ihnen durch Geschenke dahin zu bringen, dass ich sie conterfeien kann.” []
  3. A wealth of information on the colonial history of the area can be found in the Deutsches Koloniallexikon, which first appeared 1920. It has been digitized recently at the University of Frankfurt. []